A roboticist’s robust approach to using calendar and to-do list apps.
Over the past year, there’s a been an explosion of new time management apps. Startups are introducing more social calendars, to-do lists integrated with a gazillion services, and time tracking apps that log your time and provide analytics. Steve Jobs believed that people would do wonderful things if given smarter tools. And there’s a recent example of that too: Timeful, the intelligent time assistant. Even though I’m a big Steve Jobs fan, I don’t think that the fault lies entirely with the current tools.
In my opinion, most people are not tackling the time management problem from the right angle in the first place. I was lucky to have read the late Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” at a relatively young age; when I was 23. Any younger than that and I would have brushed it off as boring and irrelevant. The first three habits are: (i) Be Proactive, (ii) Begin with the End in Mind, and (iii) Put First Things First. Let’s try to bridge the gap between the principles in Covey’s book and modern calendar and to-do list apps.
I’m a roboticist (actually just a PhD student). So I took an engineering approach to the problems I was personally having with managing my time. I identified (i) lack of integration, (ii) the presence of uncertainty, and (iii) lack of proactivity as the three major root causes of the poor results I was getting using time management apps. (I was relying solely on Google Calendar and Google Tasks back then. If anyone at Google is reading this, please put some good people to work on Google Tasks!)
My approach was inspired by some research I did in undergrad on Robust Model-Predictive Control. So let’s call it “Robust, Predictive Time Management”.
Why these two out of so many options? First, their UI/UX; they look absolutely beautiful and offer a great, intuitive user experience. In addition, they are available, and consistent, on every platform! Web, Chrome, Mac OS X, iPhone, iPad, and Android. They also happen to have some minor features that fit very well within my time management framework.
Robust, Predictive Time Management
OK, enough beating around the bush. Here’s the gist of it:
Every Sunday afternoon I sit my @$$ down for about one hour to think about and plan the coming week. I do this no matter what. And then I re-plan.
The first phase is what makes the approach proactive, and is straight out of Stephen Covey’s book. In Habit #3 he advises devoting one hour per week, ideally Sunday, to planning the coming week. Why week, as opposed to day or month? Covey advocates that the week is a long enough span of time to not make your planning myopic and reactive, but it’s not so far in the future that planning becomes intractable and meaningless.
I have personally found planning on a day-to-day basis — as many time management systems suggest — to be very ineffective.
The second phase, re-planning, is what makes the approach robust with respect to the inherent uncertainty of work and everyday life.
Phase I: Planning
The Sunday planning phase consists of two steps in a loop: (i) I add to-dos to my Wunderlist lists, (ii) I schedule things I want to accomplish (either to-dos or work, exercise, etc) as specific blocks of time in Sunrise. The back-and-forth between the to-do list and the calendar is what makes the approach integrated.
I have more than 10 lists on Wunderlist; one for each facet of my life (personal, finances, research, classes, blogging, house upkeep, relationship, groceries, etc) Most of these aspects of my life also have their own calendars. Here’s how my week might look like after planning:
The order in which I plan the week is important. I start with what Stephen Covey calls “Quadrant II” tasks/activities. Important but not urgent stuff that tend to fall between the cracks as “Quadrant I” (crises) and “Quadrant III” activities (distractions) overwhelm us. I schedule two blocks of time for “Quadrant II” even if I don’t know exactly what I’ll use them for. Then I schedule research-related “Quadrant II” stuff (red blocks in the screenshot above). Note that “Quadrant II” activities are scheduled early in the day, before all the craziness begins and before I lose my energy and creativity.
Once “Quadrant II” tasks have been scheduled in Sunrise Calendar, I switch back to Wunderlist. I check for overdue and unscheduled to-dos, I add new ones, and then I switch to the Week list and start scheduling. First, on a per day basis, in Wunderlist. Then, each to-do becomes an event in Sunrise.
So, what’s up with all the white space between events? So much time going to waste there. Looks like I’m not being very efficient.
Well, I’m NOT being efficient; I’m being effective.
Phase II: Re-planning
The white space makes my approach robust. No matter how well I plan the week, things will deviate from the nominal plan; meetings will run longer, lunch will take more time. So the white space acts like a buffer between activities, especially ones that take place in different locations or involve other people. That’s one aspect of robustness; there’s already some “free time” to accommodate for one activity spilling into the next one.
But that’s not all. Uncertainty comes in all shapes and sizes. When that happens, all I have to do is look at my week, and swap blocks of time. For example, if a meeting is rescheduled, I can simply move that meeting block to the new time slot, and then find a new slot for the activity that I had scheduled for that time. (Which is why I purposely leave more “white space” at the end of the week when planning.) It’s like rearranging puzzle pieces. And I’m almost guaranteed to still accomplish everything because everything is already on my calendar. The approach doesn’t let a rescheduled meeting ruin my important activities.
Finally, sh!t happens. If something doesn’t get done this week, the corresponding to-do item will still be in Wunderlist for me to re-schedule for next week.
That concludes my approach to time management. Give it a try! Admittedly, there are a few details I left out, but this article is already too long.
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After checking out that new app, Timeful, I realized that it can automate many steps in my approach. So, I’ll try it full-time for a couple of weeks and then write a new article, comparing it to my “manual” approach.